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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
CNN's Town Hall with Democratic Presidential Candidate Tom Steyer. Aired 11p-12a ET
Aired February 5, 2020 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BASH: Welcome back to night one of this special CNN town hall event. I'm Dana Bash, live from New Hampshire, and we are just days away from the second contest of 2020. And the candidates are scrambling, crisscrossing this state. They're trying to win every voter that they can.
Tomorrow, they're going to hear from former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senators Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, as well as former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. But now let's go to our final candidate up tonight, please join me in welcoming businessman Tom Steyer.
BASH: Thank you so much. Nice to see you.
STEYER: Nice to see you. Hey, guys.
BASH: So, Mr. Steyer, before we get to audience questions -- we have a lot of them tonight -- I want to ask about what happened today. President Trump was acquitted this afternoon in the Senate. He's already calling it a victory. Long before your fellow Democrats, most of them were comfortable with it, you were calling for impeachment. You spent millions of dollars in television ads doing so. Are you worried that you actually helped President Trump in his re-election bid?
STEYER: Absolutely not. Look, this is the most corrupt president in American history.
He has -- he has been corrupt since the very first day of his administration. I started the Need to Impeach movement in October of 2017 and more than 8.5 million Americans signed that petition. And they didn't just sign a petition. They also called their congresspeople. They e-mailed and wrote their congresspeople saying, there is such a thing as right and wrong in the United States of America. This isn't about partisanship. This is about standing up for the
country and doing what's right. And they dragged Washington, D.C., into understanding this isn't just about political advantage.
So the fact that he had a Republican set of senators under Mitch McConnell, who said we don't care about the evidence, we're not going to allow any witnesses in a trial, we're going to have a sham trial and prevent the American people from learning the truth on TV, what we've seen here is something shameful in American history.
Today we've seen Republicans not do their duty by the Constitution, not do their duty by the American people. And you're asking me, is it wrong to stand up against corruption and people who won't follow their oath to the American Constitution? People, it is never wrong to stand up for what's right.
Look, my dad as a naval officer was the assistant to the chief prosecutor of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. And he told me as a kid, when you see something really wrong in your country, it's your duty to stand up against it. And that's exactly what 8.5 million Americans did, and they should be proud of themselves for doing the right things, and the Republicans have done something shameful, and I hope they pay a huge, huge price for it going forward. They absolutely deserve it.
BASH: Thank you. And before we get to audience questions, I want to ask you about Iowa.
STEYER: About what?
BASH: You spent nearly $17 million in television ads there. And the results we have so far -- we don't have them all yet -- you received less than half of one percent of state delegate equivalents. What happened?
STEYER: Look, I got in late to this race. I was the last person to get into Iowa. I said we're going to compete everywhere, we're going to work hard everywhere. We're now going towards the states -- we're having -- where we're going to build the kind of diverse coalition that is going to win not only the nomination, but is going to beat Mr. Trump in November.
If you look at this country, this is a very diverse country. And not only that, the Democratic Party is a very diverse party. Whoever is going to be the Democratic nominee is going to have to be able to show that they can win in diverse states.
And if you look at how I'm doing in Nevada and South Carolina, where I'm either second or third in South Carolina, the last week a poll showed I was getting 24 percent of the African-American vote, in fact, you can see I can put together the kind of diverse coalition that we need to have to beat Trump.
And that's something, if you look at the people who are running for president, there are people who are struggling to do that, like Pete Buttigieg. The fact of the matter is, we can't beat Trump unless the diverse elements, including black and brown communities, come out and show up for Democrats. And whoever is going to be the Democratic nominee has got to lead that coalition and make it happen, and I can do that.
BASH: OK, let's get to the audience. Joan Wentworth is from Lyndeborough and works in real estate. She is the vice chair of her town's Democratic committee and says she is deciding between you and Andrew Yang. Joan?
QUESTION: Oh, really? During his campaign, our current president emphasized that he was a businessman,
not a Washington insider, and that this made him the best candidate to lead our country. Having seen how this is working out, some voters may be skeptical that having another president with no government experience is the way to go. What can you say to allay their concerns?
STEYER: Well, Joan, let me say this. I started a business from scratch. I built it up over 27 years into a multi-billion-dollar international business. I walked away from it. I took the giving pledge to give most of my money away while I'm alive to good causes. And I've spent 10 years putting together coalitions of Americans to fight against what I think of as unchecked corporate power.
So unlike Mr. Trump, I have over a decade-long history of working in politics as an outsider, and we have never lost. So you don't have to wonder about whether I can be successful, because I've taken on oil companies in terms of clean energy. I've forced tobacco companies to pay their share of health costs to the tune of $3 billion to $4 billion a year into Medi-Cal to support the lowest income Californians. I've beat tobacco companies. I've beat utilities. I've beat drug companies.
So when you think about me, it's true that I've not held elective office. But if you believe what I believe, which is that this is a government that is broken and has been bought by corporations, you have to ask, who will take them on? Is it going to be an outsider like me, who has a decade of successful experience, never losing to corporations, coming to D.C. and taking them on and pushing for things like term limits for congresspeople and senators? Or is it going to be someone inside the beltway?
And the last thing I want to say about being a businessman is this. Whoever is going to be the Democratic nominee is going to have to take on Mr. Trump on the economy. If you listened to his speech last night or you listen to him speak any time in the last few months, he's going to run on the economy. And it's going to take somebody with the kind of economic experience and expertise that I have from three decades in the private sector to show that he's a fake businessman, he failed as a businessman, and he's a terrible steward of the American economy for the American people.
Whoever the Democrat is, is going to have to take him down. You can't have a couple years in business like Pete Buttigieg. You can't be an inside the beltway career politician. He chews them up and spits them out. You're going to have to go on the debate stage and show the American people that he's lying, that he's not telling the truth about the economy, and that he's an incompetent steward of the American economy for the American people, and I can do that.
BASH: That's the second time you brought up Pete Buttigieg's name tonight. Are you saying in this context that he's too weak, not ready to be president?
STEYER: In terms of the economy, I have literally three decades of private-sector experience. That's what it's going to take. You're not going to be able to get by with a couple of years at McKinsey. If you're going to take on this president on the debate stage, you're going to have to have enough experience and confidence to take down Donald Trump and look forward to it and win. Otherwise we're going to lose. Look, you can't look at this election and think that it's anything like a foregone conclusion that Democrats will win.
BASH: So, speaking of experience, former Vice President Joe Biden has said that this is not for on-the-job training, being the president of the United States. You do need to be ready on day one. It is fair to say, since you haven't had any experience in government, that you will need to get up to speed. Is that fair?
STEYER: Well, the only thing I can think you're talking about is foreign policy. I've traveled all over the world and done business all over the world with governments and with big business people. So when I think about what's going to be necessary to achieve, it's going to have the judgment and experience to understand how the world works. And actually, I do have that experience.
So when I think about foreign policy, I think, wow, what's really going to be necessary is to think about America in terms of its real- world relationship with other countries on a daily basis and then -- you know, so do I think I have that? Yes.
And when I look at what's happened in terms of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C., over the last 20 years, I feel as if what we really need is judgment, the kind of judgment that Barack Obama had as a state senator from Illinois as opposed necessarily to the kind of experience being in the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C.
BASH: Thank you. Let's get back to the audience. Jamie Hess is from New London, New Hampshire, retired, and he volunteers at a local nonprofit climate action group, and he's currently an undecided voter. Jamie? QUESTION: Mr. Steyer, thanks so much for being here tonight. Should the United States put a price on carbon? And if so, who will pay that price? And what will you do with the money that's collected? [23:10:00]
And how will you convince Congress to go along with your proposal?
STEYER: So, Jamie, I can tell from the way Dana described you that you're someone who cares a lot about climate. Me, too. So let me say this. I am the only person who is running for president who will say that it is his or her first priority, the only person. And I've said I will declare a state of emergency on climate on the first day of my presidency, and I will start using the emergency powers of the president -- I'm going to answer your question on price, don't worry.
QUESTION: Sure, you bet.
STEYER: ... to put in rules, to put in rules about how fast utilities have to move to clean energy, how fast car companies have to stop creating gasoline-fired cars, how fast businesses have to rebuild buildings to make them more energy-efficient. In California -- we -- you know, I'm from California. And the good news is we've tried everything, so we actually have data about what works.
So the question was, how effective is putting a price on carbon -- how do you get it through Congress? And here's the answer. That isn't what really works. There has been a sense in this country that what works is somehow using the market.
Let me say this. As somebody who was in the private sector for 30 years, who I think understands -- who believes in a dynamic, competitive, effective private sector, a price on carbon, which we've had in California through our cap-and-trade system has been very marginally effective.
So do I think it's bad? No, I don't think it's bad. I think it's marginally positive. But the way we're going to get out of this problem is not by trusting the market. We are going to get out of this problem by putting in rules and making corporations obey them and by spending money as a government to rebuild this country.
What does that mean? It means 4.5 million plus well-paid union jobs across this country, the biggest union job program in the history of the United States. It means we're going to start with environmental justice, with the communities, mostly black and brown across this country, where our society concentrates poison. So you can't breathe without getting asthma, and you can't drink the tap water without getting sick.
So we're going to make this work the old-fashioned way: We're going to have a government that puts in rules starting day one. We're going to make it happen. We're going to -- we call our climate plan a justice-based climate plan. We can make this work. We can be better paid. We can more just. We can be cleaner and healthier, particularly in black and brown communities, which are bearing the brunt of our pollution. And in fact, in terms of a price on carbon, it's a nice add-on, but it's not going to drive the bus.
BASH: Mr. Steyer, you mentioned your time in business. You made your $1.6 billion in part in investing in coal, oil, and gas. Now you say, as you did again here, climate crisis, that's your number-one priority. What was your "aha" moment? When did you say, "I'm going to step away from my company and I'm going to work to help solve this crisis"?
STEYER: Well, let me say this. Our company invested in every part of the American economy, including oil and gas and coal. And we did it -- we didn't do much of it in terms of the percentage of the economy, but we definitely did it.
And I realized, as we were doing it, I basically thought the American government worked, so if there's a big problem, the American government will solve it. And somewhere around 14 or 15 years ago, I thought, this doesn't seem to be working. There's this huge unintended consequence of having a fossil fuel economy, which is climate change.
And I started to do whatever I could to try and solve this problem then. And what did that look like to me? I still thought it wasn't a government problem. I started to back research, technology research, thinking, oh, you know, the problem is, we don't have good enough clean energy. I'll invest in research in universities so they can come up with better technologies. And I invested in bipartisan studies to prove that solving this would not only solve a problem, but would make us all the things I said, better employed, healthier, more just. Neither of those things mattered a bit.
So what I finally decided was, this is a political problem. I divested. I walked away from my company. I took the giving pledge. And for 12 years, I have been fighting this fight politically, because I realized the real problem here is that it's not the people don't know the answer. It's that they'd rather make money for the next two or three years, and they own the Congress.
There's never been a congressional climate bill, ever, 30 years. What I'm asking Americans to do, what I've been saying for the last 12 years, is no one got into this to do a bad thing. No one knew that we were causing climate change.
But now we do.
So I'm asking people to do exactly what I did, which was say, OK, let's solve the problem. We have information.
We absolutely don't have a choice about whether to solve this. We have to solve this.
And I can tell you, we have to but the good news is we can. We have the technology and the capability of solving this and being better- paid and healthier. But we're not going to solve it unless we try. And so what I'm saying to people is, let's get on board to try. We're going to have to rebuild this country, great. We're way overdue on infrastructure spending. We need to build millions of affordable housing units and rebuild this country, fine. And we also have to reinvent who we are as a country.
I mean, it's unmistakable with this president that people don't know what it means -- what the values of being an American are. We've lost our way. That's OK. This is going to give us a chance to reinvent our purpose as a country and save the world. We have to do it. We can do it. And actually we're going to have a gas doing it, and it's going to pull us together. We're going to succeed in the biggest challenge in history and we're going to be really proud of ourselves for doing it.
BASH: OK. Let's bring in David Connelly, who is an IT manager from Salem, New Hampshire, also trying to decide between you and Andrew Yang.
QUESTION: Mr. Steyer, I'm asking this question on behalf of my young daughters, they just...
STEYER: What are their names?
CONNELLY: ... mean the world to me. They're Isabel and Chloe (ph).
CONNELLY: So the deficit is out of control now, expected to reach a trillion dollars this year. Deficits are meant to decrease during economic expansions. How big of a priority will addressing the deficit be for your administration? And what specific steps will you take to reduce it?
STEYER: So let me say, your daughters are impressing me. They're worried about the deficit. OK. Well, let's start by saying, I recognize this is a huge problem, but I'm going to put it in a different context, if you don't mind. We have a deficit because this president and this Congress chose to blow up the deficit to give the biggest tax break in history to rich people and big corporations. That's why we have this deficit.
And they are now talking about solving the deficit by going after Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. I consider that to be a deeply immoral act. So, in answer to your daughters' questions, let me say that we start with another immoral act, which is that for 40 years there has been gross income inequality in the United States of America. And that has been exacerbated by the fact that rich people pay lower income taxes, lower taxes on their income than working people.
So I would start, in terms of the deficit, but also very much in terms of income inequality, by taking back all the give-aways on income to rich people and big corporations. They are absolutely wrong. Big corporations now pay 11 percent on their income. That is a ludicrously low number and it's wrong. Amazon pays zero, run by the richest man in the world. So that's the
first thing. Second of all, I'm for a wealth tax. You know, if we think that incomes are unequal and have gotten much worse, which they have, 10 times worse over the last 40 years, wealth -- we have redistributed the wealth in this country from everybody to just the richest people. I'm for a wealth tax both to raise money and to address this huge inequality.
And the last thing I'll say is this. We treat passive investment income and tax it at a lower rate for the same level of income than we do for earned income. Why I would be paying a lower rate on an investment than somebody pays who is going to work at 8:00 in the morning, I don't know. But I would change that, too. I'd take away the whole investment loophole, tax those at exactly the same rate, and as a result, I can give a 10 percent tax cut to everybody in America who makes less than 250,000 bucks.
So in answer to your deficit question, we can solve the deficit, but we can do it in the context of gross income and wealth inequality in this country that is supported by this president, supported by these Republicans, absolutely morally wrong. And when they talk about solving the deficit by taking away health care, retirement moneys, or supporting the key investments in the American people, I couldn't disagree more. I don't think this is a hard question.
There is a very straightforward, correct thing to do here, and I'd start going in on day one.
BASH: And yes or no, would a President Tom Steyer commit to balancing the federal budget?
STEYER: So the answer to that, Dana, is, it depends, and let me tell you why. There are times when you want to have a balanced budget and there are times when you don't want a balanced budget. The whole idea about economics is when -- think about it
as if we're a family, when times are flush, you want to be putting some money in the bank because everything is going well so you're saving.
So if something goes wrong, somebody gets sick, somebody loses their job, you have somebody goes to college, you have money to spend. So the answer is when times are good like now, you should be balancing the budget. When times are tough like 2008, 2009, you have to be able to take money out of the bank to pay for the health insurance, to pay for the unemployment, to pay for school. That's just the same with us.
When times are tough, the government has got to come in with money to support the American people. When times are fat, then you're going to be saving and putting money away because you know there won't always be fat. So the answer to your question is, you have got to think about this. You know, you've got to be responsible. The question being asked by, I think Isabel and Chloe, if I remember their names correctly, is this. Are you being responsible to the American people going forward? The answer for this president is, not close.
He's a liar. Let's be clear. He's a liar. He has always been a liar. He's lying today. He will be lying tomorrow.
BASH: Voters are just starting to get to know you. So, you've never run for office before. So to that end, tell us something that we don't know about you, for example, a moment or an event where you faced adversity and you had to overcome it.
STEYER: Well, I'll tell you this. So, in my first job after grad school, I was working for a big firm and I didn't get along at all with my boss. And I thought he was doing -- I couldn't respect what he was doing. I couldn't respect how he was behaving. I thought that he was treating people horribly, and that he was out of control, and he was -- I was a peon and he was a big deal.
And I decided there's just no way I can put up with this, and I'm going to have to stand up and, you know, figure out how to deal with this because I just will not allow this to go on. So I got in a gigantic fight with the guy. I left. The people at the firm 100 percent sided with him. I left. There was -- they told me, not only can you never speak to anyone in this firm, no one can go to your wedding.
So I basically took on the power structure with zero backing. And it turned out after several years that everything that I had said was true. That, in fact, I had stood up against someone who was doing some bad things that I didn't even know about, and all of a sudden afterwards people started calling me up to say, I have always been on your side, who didn't go to my wedding.
STEYER: So let me say this, I was dealing -- really, they asked me to leave the firm in 15 minutes. You can't say good-bye to your friends. You're out. And I basically felt like, you know something, it's not that different from impeachment. It's not that different from telling the truth on climate. It's not that different from standing here and telling you guys, I can take down Donald Trump.
When you're right, you've got to stick to your guns, and you're going to win. You may not win right away, but you've got to do what's right. You then ask me, do I feel right for standing up against the most corrupt president of the United States of America when no one else would do it? Yes, you bet I do. Do I feel right standing up against that guy at work? Yes.
And what I'm telling you guys is, we're in a tough spot. This guy can get re-elected. Take a look at what has gone on in the last three days and tell me he can't get re-elected. Somebody is going to have to take him down who is not scared of him. Somebody is going to have to take him down who has the economic expertise, who is not an inside- the-Beltway person, and that's me.
So what does it show? Look, I will stick. I will stick against people who are doing the wrong thing. I'm not scared of them. And I'm going to win. And that's what happened all those years ago.
BASH: Mr. Steyer, thank you.
BASH: We have a lot more to come. Stay right there. We're going to take a quick break. More right after this.
BASH: Welcome back. We're here with Tom Steyer for this CNN town hall. Want to get straight to the audience. Question from Rocco Burdge, who is a high school student and currently supporting Mayor Buttigieg.
QUESTION: Mr. Steyer, I am a bilateral deaf student that wears cochlear implants in order to hear. My question for you is, how will you end the negative stigma and discrimination against people like me that suffer from disabilities?
STEYER: So, let me say this. Probably the biggest thing that I believe in is the idea that we're in it together, that we succeed together, and that looking down or not investing and giving a chance to anybody who is an American is something that to me is deeply wrong. So when I think about disabilities, it starts with the Individuals with Disability Education Act.
Just so you know, you might know this, basically the federal government says that they'll pay approximately 40 percent of the cost of the education of individuals with disabilities, and they pay about 13 percent.
So to me, the real question here is partly a policy one of
making sure that we fund people's abilities to succeed, Rocco, but beyond that there is a question here about attitude that goes towards people with disabilities, people of different race, people with a different sexual orientation, or however we want to cut the American pie.
And so when I think about people with disabilities, I think exactly the same way. I think we've got to start thinking about the United States of America, again, as the country where we succeed together.
And that means investing and making sure that you get every chance to succeed up to the level of your talents and ambitions and hard work, and exactly the same for every other person in the United States, is how we're going to define our success as a country. So when we think about the way Mr. Trump and the Republicans think
about education and support and how they describe other people in this society, I couldn't disagree more. Supporting people in this country, spending on education, is not a cost or an expense. It's an investment in the success of those people, their communities and this country.
And any time that we're treating someone in this country as less than a full individual, that to me is a dramatic failure of justice in the United States of America.
So I think that Mr. Trump's attitude in terms of immigration is a straight-up racist attack on people based on ethnicity and race. I believe that what he does is separate people on all of those measures to try and succeed politically. And I think that every single one of those instances is deeply wrong.
And so I'm someone who wants to talk very specifically about our differences, and positively. We need to talk about race so we can see the truth of what's happened. We need to talk about immigration in terms of his racism so we can make sure that we end it immediately and start going back to being a value-driven society based on justice and equality and inclusion.
So in answer to your question, we can't have this -- in America, we cannot have the kind of separation and racism and stigmatization that Mr. Trump indulges in. And every time he brings it up, we should come back at him hard. Because anyone who gets away with racism without being answered thinks he's won. And particularly for kids, we cannot ever let those statements go unchallenged. It's wrong and they need to know that we're coming back at them every single time hard, and he's never going to win on that kind of behavior.
BASH: I want you to meet Erin Plant. Erin is a clinical social worker. Erin?
STEYER: What's her name?
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Steyer.
STEYER: Hi, Erin.
QUESTION: As president, what will you do to address the increasing rates of anxiety, depression and suicidality among our youth?
STEYER: Erin, one of the things -- for the last seven or eight years I have traveled around this country full time as a political organizer. I started one of the biggest grassroots political organizations in this country called NextGen America. And that means I've -- I've done over 50 town halls on impeachment. I've talked to Americans across this country in all the states. And one of the things that I found over that time is that mental
health is an under-discussed, under-resourced true source of pain for Americans. And it really is a question about anxiety and depression that goes untreated -- as I say, mental health is health, and we need -- it's like you never go to the doctor and they say, "You have a broken leg, come back in four months and I'll set it."
But if you go in with a mental health issue, they literally say stuff like that. So part of this, in my mind, is about putting money towards mental health.
In my health plan, there's $100 billion a year to try and address specifically mental health. And that's designed really to go after anxiety and depression across this country, as it shows up in terms of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.
So part of this -- and I have another $75 billion going directly towards the opioid crisis. And that's dealing, I think, with the symptoms that exist of what is a huge nation-wide issue.
But there's something else going on, because, in a country where the life expectancy has gone down three years in a row, because of those deaths of despair, the question is what's wrong with our country in a bigger sense? Why are we so anxious and despairing?
And to me there's no question but that we've lost our sense of values. I mean, we were talking about individuals with disabilities and treating them as full human beings. We're talking about treating immigrants from the south as full human beings. We're talking about dealing with race honestly.
We have to go back to being a value-driven country that stands for things, including solving our biggest crisis, which is climate. We have to go back to being the America of freedom, justice, equality, and moral leadership.
Because there's a reason that we feel so anxious and despairing, and that's because we don't know what being an American stands for. And so we have to treat the symptoms. I'll put the money into it. We'll spend the time. We'll spend the resources.
But more than that, let's remember that being Americans is supposed to be fun and optimistic, and let's prove that doing the right things by each other and the world is going to be fun; we're going to succeed; we're going to kick ass. That's who we are as a people. Let's go back to being that, so that these symptoms die down. And in the meantime, we will deal with them aggressively, Erin.
BASH: Thank you for that. I want to bring in Eric LeBlanc (ph), who is an architect from Nashua, New Hampshire, and is undecided about how to vote in Tuesday's primary here.
QUESTION: Thank you. And welcome to New Hampshire.
STEYER: Thank you.
QUESTION: Renters today can expect to spend 40 percent to 50 percent of their income on monthly rent. Similarly, housing costs have risen to exceed 2008 levels. Both of these factors create a very tight market for young families as well as low-income families.
What would you direct your HUD secretary to do, once in office, in order to address the issue of rising housing costs and lack of inventory?
STEYER: So, Eric, this is a straightforward problem. We have too few affordable housing units in the United States of America. It's not hard to figure out why prices go up. This is like -- there's too little supply and too much demand. We need more affordable housing units, to the tune of millions.
So the real question is how are we going to get them; how are we going to pay for them; and what's the -- what is the federal government going to do about it?
And here's my answer. Look, I've said we need to rebuild America. Yeah, including 7 million affordable housing units.
You know, the homeless crisis, which has its center in my home state of California, is the most toxic example of this. But we have literally millions and millions too few affordable housing units.
And the reason is that the federal government decided that "the market would provide," that if we just stepped aside, the market would provide affordable housing. And now we have this gigantic problem, which is it didn't.
And people who understand markets understand that, no, the markets work to make money for the people building things in markets. What we need is a government that has -- that gets things done for the citizens of the United States.
So we're going to have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building affordable housing units in a climate-smart way across this country. Yep. And you want to know something? Great. That's what part of my climate plan -- it makes total sense; it will create millions of good-paying union jobs across this country and will end -- we have too few supply. We're going to build them and now we'll have enough.
And it's like, OK, one of the things that Ronald Reagan said that isn't true, that Mr. Trump appears to believe, is that government is bad. Let's be clear. Every civilized country in the world needs a government, including ours. And here's an example of an absolute market failure that is absolutely predictable, that the government has to step in and solve. And we've got to get over this idea of these Republican lies that government is bad and the market will provide.
I spent 30 years in the private sector. I think I understand a little more about markets than that. And we are going to have to actually have the government step in and make this happen. And I'll do it. (APPLAUSE)
BASH: OK. Let's turn now to Chris Conti (ph). Chris (ph) is a real estate developer -- real estate investor, rather -- and a photographer from Greenland, New Hampshire, also undecided about Tuesday's primary.
QUESTION: Good evening. From conducting a rigged, sham trial in the president's impeachment to refusing their duty to vote on Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court, Republicans have shown that there is no ethical line they won't cross to give themselves partisan advantage, even arguably violating their own oaths of office and subverting the United States Constitution.
If elected, how will you move our country forward, knowing that Republicans will spend your entire term using the Senate to obstruct you in any way they think they can get away with, illegally or legally, as we saw them do to President Obama?
STEYER: So let me say this. There are some assumptions in that question that I would at least like to bring up and hopefully disagree with.
I started by saying I'm a grassroots person. I am a grassroots person. And what that means is I spend a lot of time figuring out how to register, engage and convince people that voting really matters.
So when we think about 2020, I keep saying, we need to put together this diverse coalition of Americans. There are two ways of thinking about 2020, and one of them honestly is the implication of this question, which is that the Republicans are going to control the Senate.
OK, I don't buy it -- that we're going to have to pretend to be Republican-like -- we're like Republicans but a little nicer -- in order to win. I don't buy it.
Here's what I think. I think that almost half of Americans don't vote. And they don't vote because they think that corporations have bought the system; it's corrupt; it doesn't work for me; no one tells the truth; why would I vote?
Here's what I think. They're all Democrats. So if we get out there and do the grassroots work this year, tell the truth, make it clear that, when they vote, everything changes, that all the things we want, we can get, affordable health care, quality public education, clean air and water, living wage -- we get it all. But they have to show up.
That's what happened in 2018. That's what has to happen in 2020, is that the people who think the system's broken have to realize that, when they show up -- this is young people, black people, brown people. When they show up, everything changes and we don't have to worry about Mitch McConnell running the Senate because Mitch McConnell ain't running the Senate. And we don't have to worry about the kind of obstructionism for Supreme Court justices or any federal justices because now it's not run by Republicans any more.
We need to win. We need a broad win, and that means a grassroots revolution from the people of the United States.
When I'm talking about having that coalition, I know it's possible. That's what grassroots -- that's what NextGen is, more than doubled the turnout of young people in the districts we're in.
So in answer to your question, anyone who's telling you -- who's running for president and saying, "I can meet in the middle with Republicans; I can show up; my personality is great; I know how to work with Republicans," all I can say is this is a party that just refused to allow witnesses at a trial. This is the party that didn't let President Obama have a Supreme Court pick.
So in answer to your question, we have to win a big victory. That's how we change the United States of America, not by meeting in the middle, but by telling the truth and getting people to understand that, when we tell the truth, we're going to go down on that truth and make it happen. And when they show up, it's going to happen.
That's the answer to your question. We have to win a big victory. This is not about meeting in the middle and pretending to be Republicans. We're not like Republicans. We have to turn the page on their lies and get back to an inclusive, successful America that works for the American people and not corporations. And that's how we're going to win.
BASH: Thank you so much.
STEYER: (inaudible) Dana.
BASH: We're going to sneak in another quick commercial break. Stay right there. We're going to have a lot more from Tom Steyer after this.
BASH: Welcome back to CNN's presidential town hall with Tom Steyer. Mr. Steyer, we talked a lot about policy and issues. And we're going to continue to do that, but I just have to ask you one question about your tie.
STEYER: The tie?
BASH: OK. It's a tartan tie. You wear it all the time. Do you have one tie? Do you have a lot of ties that look like that tie? Take us inside your tie game.
STEYER: It's not much of a game. You know, I like to wear bright colors, because it's a lot more fun. And you get up in the morning, and let's have some darn fun for God sakes. And I went into a store, probably 20 years ago at least, maybe more, called the House of Scotland.
Yeah. I walk in, and I say to the lady behind the counter, "I want to buy all your red plaid ties." And she goes, "If you buy every red plaid tie in this store, I'm going to throw in a scarf."
And I was like, "We're good. Let's do it." So I bought them all.
BASH: How many was that?
STEYER: I don't know, 15 ties, 20 ties, all red plaid. Because my attitude is like, seriously, when I get up in the morning, I want to have some fun. And I want to go out there and have some energy. And you know what? If you have to wear a tie, why not wear a bright one? That's all I'm doing.
BASH: So as president, this is going to be your look, probably with a jacket? Just this tie?
STEYER: I am going to wear a red plaid tie, and I am going to bring that kind of energy to every single day, because, let's face it, isn't it about time for the United States to go back to having some fun again, for God sakes?
Look, let's do this. Let's win. Let's have fun doing it. And let's go back to being a value-driven country that stands up for itself and wins all the time. Let's do that, OK?
BASH: All right. And let's go back to the audience. Jane Slayton is a high school -- excuse me, just a school principal -- I'm not sure what level -- you can tell us -- from Andover and also undecided. Jane?
QUESTION: Yes, welcome back to New Hampshire. I'm a K-8 public school administrator. And I'd like to know more about your view on charter schools. I understand that you want charter schools to meet the same performance standards as traditional public schools, but I'd like to know more about your plan and timeline, if elected, to improve all public education, including charter schools.
STEYER: OK. So, Jane, let me say this. My mom was a public school teacher. And she also, after she retired, went and taught prisoners at the Brooklyn House of Detention. My brother actually graduated early from high school to go work in the public schools with my mom and has been an advocate for at-risk kids as a career, and he's older than I am.
So let me put in context how I feel about education.
I view this as the essence of our future prosperity, the essence of our future justice, and the essence of our future mobility. So when I think about education, I remember that the number-one measure of future success in our society is third grade reading comprehension.
So I know that we have to put a much higher degree of emphasis on supporting teachers, on starting earlier with kids, because you can't teach kids in third grade reading comprehension. You have to start much earlier.
And I also know that if you don't give kids an equal chance in school, that you're legislating inequality for the next generation. And you can't look at education and not talk about race, because in virtually every single major American policy area, including education, there's a gigantic racial undertone that goes undiscussed.
So in answer to your question, actually, I'm not a supporter of charter schools. What I'm a supporter of is making the public school system work and supporting teachers in that public school system so they can be as effective as possible so that our kids have the greatest possible chance.
And I would put much more money into it, both in terms of paying teachers, but also in terms of supporting teachers with the kind of services, like librarians and nurses and mental health support.
When I think about what we're trying to do in terms of school, this is the basic investment in ourselves and in our future prosperity. Look at any successful country in this world, they spend an unusual, inordinate amount of time making sure that the kids can succeed.
And so Mr. Trump, he does a whole lot of bad things, like cutting taxes on rich people and big corporations. But he doesn't understand what actually makes for a prosperous and just society, which is supporting public schools and public school teachers.
So in answer to your question, I believe that charter schools don't solve the problem. They take the emphasis away from doing what really can solve the problem, which is effective public schools, and they're a sidelight. And really what I'm in favor of is absolutely making sure that the teachers have an ability to succeed and our kids get a chance to succeed, and in particular that they get an equal chance to succeed.
Last thing I'll say is this. We spend ten times more in our budget on defense than we do on education, $70 billion on education. The defense number has gone up $100 billion under Mr. Trump and is at over $700 billion. That is a dramatic misplacement of values in our society.
BASH: Let's bring in Brenna Leach, a student right here at Saint Anselm, and is also undecided.
QUESTION: In regards to your statement before the break, in the last election, several Americans either didn't care about their vote or simply didn't vote at all. How can the Democrat Party keep independent and Democratic voters ensured -- interested until the end to ensure that their vote -- voters and that the vote is important? STEYER: So let me say this. At NextGen, we have asked literally hundreds of thousands or millions of young people why they don't vote. And the answer is it doesn't matter, they don't believe in the system.
So, really, what we have to do is get out -- it's not that they don't care about life. It's that they don't believe that democracy works. And so when someone says that to us, that's our chance to start a conversation.
Really what we need to show is that Mr. Trump is incompetent and that we will provide a much better standard of living than he possibly can, because he is incompetent. And so that's going to be talking about the things that are going to change that we can -- that we know can change and that we know people care about.
If you ask young people what do they care about, there are a bunch of things, but the top four are usually health care, cost of college, racial justice, and climate. We are on the completely different side of every one of those issues from the Republicans and Mr. Trump.
And, in fact, if we're going to have a functioning democracy, we need people to turn out, we need to have representative democracy, specifically including people under the age of 35. And if we can make that stick -- and at NextGen, we have been able to make it stick. NextGen is the biggest youth voter mobilizer in American history. When we turn out, we're going to win everything.
And the point is for people to believe that change is possible. And when people believe change is possible, the diverse coalition that I was talking about that we're building around this country is going to win everything, and we're going to win in places that people don't think we can compete. And it's going to happen this year.
BASH: Mr. Steyer, thank you so much. Appreciate it. Appreciate your time.
STEYER: Dana, thank you so much.
BASH: An hour goes fast, right?
STEYER: It sure does. Thank you guys so much.
BASH: Thank you. And thank you so much for watching. We've got a lot more tomorrow night. Tune in for Senator Bernie Sanders, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former Governor Deval Patrick. That's all going to start at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. Right now, "Cuomo Prime Time" is live from New Hampshire. Stay tuned.